The cricket clubrooms swelled with chatter. At the heart of the room, Leigh sat with several other mothers in a circle around their infants. Their babies rolled and kicked on pink or blue bunny rugs, while their mothers discussed trying to open paracetamol safety caps in the middle of the night. Leigh glanced at her twin daughters, Ruby and Eloise, chewing their rubbery teething rattles. Seated beside her, Fiona produced a glossy pamphlet out of her nappy bag and tentatively handed it to Leigh. Leigh recognised the coloured blocks of the Playschool logo but the words swirled like water dancing down a drain.
‘Oh, the Playschool concert? When is it?’ Leigh asked. She didn’t bother to ask how much. If she concentrated, hard enough, the figure would become legible. However, the price wouldn’t make a difference. A trickle of perspiration ran down her side.
Bouncing her wriggling daughter on one knee, Fiona raised her voice in a new-friendship-forming way. ‘The girls would love it. Sophie can ditch daycare. We’ll have lunch in town.’
Not wanting to be abrasive, Leigh took a moment to study the pamphlet. The ceiling fans moved a sense of a breeze across Leigh’s shoulders. ‘I’m really sorry I have something on then. Maybe another time.’
Outside the crowd burst into a wave of cheers and hoots. Leigh’s husband, Joe, would be in his element, playing on the dusty, drought-dry, oval. He loved cricket and insisted they all participate in his domestic dream of fatherhood every Saturday.
Fiona frowned, feeling rejected. ‘Yeah. Sure thing.’
‘I need to go to the loo.’ Leigh rose, heady with embarrassment, the constant noise pounding her ears. She knew Fiona was only being kind.
Leigh grabbed her water bottle and gulped down the metallic tasting water. The water pooled and bloated her mid section as if it were stuffed full of wet newspapers.
Fiona placed a hand on Leigh’s arm. ‘Leigh, it’s fine. I can watch them.’
‘No, I … I need to change their nappies.’
First, Leigh picked up Ruby from the floor, her soft one-year-old body, relaxing into Leigh’s arms. It was one of Leigh’s favourite experiences. That moment when her babies went from bracing and rigid, to heavy and soft, then melting into her shoulder. Some days that feeling was what kept her going.
Leigh pushed the awkwardly large pram into the lavender fragranced disabled toilet. The cool, violet-tiled cubicle was a brief refuge. She hunched over on the toilet seat. I can’t do this anymore.
Ruby started crying. Then Eloise.
On Sunday, Leigh, Joe and the girls ate rice cakes and processed cheese at the local playground. The park was freshly landscaped with a bright slide and swings. In the background of their new housing estate builders were knocking up crisp homes for enthusiastic young families.
‘Glad I have my weekends to spend with you guys,’ Joe said, tickling the twins’ toes. ‘Not like those poor buggers.’
The heat beat down due to the lack of mature trees. In their pram the twins were strategically faced away from the burning sun. Sunscreen was a luxury. A breeze carrying building-dust swept hair across Leigh’s face. She shrugged, accustomed to the construction site debris and too exhausted for chitchat.
‘What? Don’t you want me around on weekends?’ Joe said, and turned his cap around so Leigh could see his light-hearted expression.
Eloise dropped her rattle on the bark for the tenth time. Joe scooped it up and flew it like an aeroplane back into the girls’ clutching hands. They squealed in excitement. ‘Funny game is it, pumpkins?’
Despondent, Leigh sunk her head into her hands. ‘Of course I do … I’m just thinking, I can’t stop thinking … about work. About money.’ She was so tired and malnourished from breastfeeding twins that her vision was cottony. ‘Fifty dollars a week for groceries and nappies just isn’t enough.’
Joe winked at Leigh and tucked the flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. ‘We’ll manage. Stop worrying.’
‘I can’t, obviously. I need to give my boss an answer.’ Leigh couldn’t rise out of the sludgy hole she was sinking into. ‘You know the store won’t extend my maternity leave.’
‘Well. You wanted kids and the house,’ Joe said, jokingly gesturing to their sun-backed suburban surroundings.
‘Great. Thanks. How about you give up some of the hundred dollars you need for lunch money each week.’
Lowering his voice, Joe glared at the vacant blue sky. It hadn’t rained in weeks. ‘I’m not arguing about this. It pays for the train too. Fuck, we’ve been over this. Once the car’s paid off …’
A car they couldn’t afford to run. With the high petrol prices Leigh limited herself to driving to the supermarket on Sunday afternoons, while Joe minded the girls.
Leigh licked her lips for extra moisture. ‘That’s three years away.’
Joe lifted up his hands, in mocking exasperation. He laughed, irritated. ‘Go back to work then. I don’t know.’
She smiled, tightly. ‘Hello. Daycare fees for two kids.’
Lost for a response, Joe moved so his body could shade Leigh’s face from the sun. This time, Ruby threw her rattle onto the ground in delighted expectation. When Joe didn’t retrieve it, she let out a frustrated wail.
Leigh leaned over her knees to collect the rattle. She exhaled, sharply. ‘Ruby, please … stop it.’
Joe, finally losing his usual patient humour, snapped. ‘I’m doing everything I can. Can’t you see that?’
Sighing, Leigh nodded. It was an argument without end. She thought about going to the supermarket later that day and spending as little as possible on as much food as she could, while gazing, longingly, at the fresh apples and cauliflower that she could never add to her basket of frozen peas and carrots. It all magnified the headache she got, trying to concentrate on reading the prices.
In a tired voice she pleaded with Joe, ‘How long are we supposed to survive on frozen vegies, rice cakes and fish fingers? I can’t even take them to the Playschool concert or make new friends for fear of having them ask me to go someplace where I’ll have to spend money.’
A lone seagull pecked the ground, searching for crumbs. Joe shooed at it, half-heartedly. ‘I don’t know what else we can do. We can’t move or sell. Rent is more than the mortgage. I’m not getting a raise for a while and my parents are too old to watch the girls, and yours—’
‘I never thought it would be like this.’ Sometimes Leigh even panicked she would take flight from the supermarket car park and disappear.
Joe sighed. ‘Don’t give up on us, Leigh. It’ll get better.’
The following morning Leigh went into the twins’ room to breastfeed them. The room was wallpapered in soft greens and pinks, and the two matching cots were pressed together so the twins could grab each other’s fingers and rattles through the rails. When she picked up Eloise, Leigh pressed her palm to her daughter’s face. Her cheeks were clammy. Leigh pressed her palm to Ruby’s sleepy forehead and she was also as warm as a cup of tea. In Leigh’s arms, Eloise woke, bucking and scratching at her flaming-pink ears.
Leigh’s temples pulsed. Her usual, inexpensive, day at home wasn’t to be.
Leigh packed the nappy bag and anxiously pushed the twins outside in the pram. Joe had used their car to get to the train station for work in the city. The wind blew dust in waves along the deserted streets. Occasionally, a tradesman in a Ute or van drove past, and Leigh kept her head down. She missed the protective city buzz of pedestrians and reliable public transport. After forty minutes of walking in the heat she reached the clinic in an exhausted sweat. The girl’s had slept slumped together in the pram.
It was as she thought. Both girls had an ear infection and needed penicillin. Leigh had ten dollars in her purse left over from yesterday’s grocery shop. There was nothing in the bank and all their credit cards were at their limit.
While the twins dozed feverishly, Leigh forced herself to march the short distance to the chemist. With the help of another customer, Leigh pushed the pram into the air-conditioning. She handed the scripts to the assistant.
The woman unfolded the scripts with her tiger patterned fingernails and asked, ‘Do you have a Health Care Card, love?’
‘No,’ Leigh said. She had recently tried to get one, behind Joe’s back, but his income was slightly above the cut-off mark.
Leigh’s neck stiffened. ‘How much is it?’
The woman peered at her. ‘Thirty-two dollars. It’ll be about ten minutes.’
Slowly, she spun the pram around and strolled up and down the shampoo and vitamin isles. She had to calm down so she could remember what the assistant would say about the dosage instructions. But as each minute went by, stinging tears got a firmer hold.
‘It’s ready, love,’ the assistant called out.
Leigh started. She approached the counter and opened her purse.
‘I’m sorry. I only have this.’ Leigh held up her pitifully crisp ten dollar note. ‘We don’t get paid until Friday.’
‘Yes. This is bread and milk money. I wasn’t counting on anyone getting sick,’ she said, while tears slotted out her pale lashes. ‘How am I going to pay?’
The woman peered down her nose at the red-cheeked twins and handed Leigh the two chilled bottles of penicillin. ‘Keep your bread money, love. Your details are on the computer. Come back Friday with the money.’
‘But? I can’t, I … Thank you.’
Leigh managed to push the pram out of the chemist before breaking into sobs of relief. On the savage and cloudless walk home her crushing embarrassment segued into an intolerable fury. She would never allow herself to be so humiliated again.
That night Leigh went into the main bedroom to confront Joe. He was leaning against the headboard, setting the alarm for the morning on his mobile phone. The bedcovers matched the orange and grey décor of the room. Leigh couldn’t remember why she’d ever liked those colours together.
With his hair still wet from the shower, Joe patted the sheet beside him. ‘Come over here, babe.’
Leigh sighed and plonked down. The pillows at her back curved into her spine, inviting her bones to collapse into them. She had a cracking headache. The horrendous day wasn’t over yet.
‘Can we leave the lights on?’ Joe murmured, nuzzling her neck.
The proposition shook Leigh out of her exhausted stupor and she braced herself for a familiar debate. ‘Did you get condoms?’
‘I forgot. We still can, I’ll just pull out.’
‘Come on, breastfeeding is the natural pill.’
‘Yeah, and money grows on trees.’ Leigh pushed Joe away. ‘We can’t have any more kids. We just can’t.’
‘I know. I’ll get the snip soon—’
‘When we get some spare money.’ Leigh laughed, wearily.
Not ready to give up, Joe ran his hand along Leigh’s bare arm. ‘I miss you, Leigh.’
‘We need to talk.’
‘I’ll buy condoms. I promise.’
‘It’s not that.’ Leigh exhaled what seemed like a thick black smoke filled with the day’s crippling events. ‘I rang work today and spoke to my boss.’
‘I know this isn’t what you expected, or want, but we all have to make adjustments since we had two, not the one, baby we budgeted on.’ She’d been rehearsing her speech all afternoon. ‘I’ve told you, Joe. I can’t do this anymore. I’m serious this time.’
‘Shit. What are you saying, Leigh?’ Joe went white and got out of the bed. ‘Are you leaving me? It’s not that bad. Shit, shit.’
‘It is bad. I can’t exist on fifty dollars a week. I want my own income. Everything goes on bills, even the Family Tax Benefit that’s supposed to be for the girls, goes on our bills. I need to work. So I figured out a compromise.’
Pacing at the end of the bed, Joe stretched his arms behind his head. ‘Uh huh.’
In one calm breath, Leigh spoke, ‘I’m going back to the store Saturdays and Sundays and you’ll have to watch the girls.’
Joe gazed at her like a confused child. ‘But what about cricket?’
‘That’s the compromise. No more cricket.’
‘But … I can’t give up cricket.’
‘It’s a deal breaker, Joe.’
‘What about doing that in-home daycare you talked about.’
‘I told you, I can’t study properly to get the certificate.’
‘But I’ve seen you read books.’ His expression hardened. ‘You’re not having me on are you?’
‘Joe! I’ve told you a million times. Dyslexia is different for everyone. I can read chunks of text in a novel, and numbers from years of training at work, but not words with space and colour around them. Textbooks, advertising, and that, the words turn into a school of fish on the page. You know the only way I cope at the supermarket is by the prices and pictures. My boss is kind and understanding. There aren’t many like her. I can’t give this job up.’
‘But cricket … is my life. I can’t live without my Saturdays. What’s the whole point of living then?’
I’ve been wondering that too, Leigh wanted to shout. Instead she got out of bed and marched up to her disillusioned husband.
‘I’m working weekends. It’s about an extra two hundred dollars with penalty rates. Take it or leave it, Joe. I start next weekend.’
Joe’s shoulders sunk forward. ‘Okay.’
Nominated for the Judith Rodriguez Prize by Dr Jo Langdon